My Schadenfreude Experience in Detroit

Christ, it didn’t seem to matter. Black or White. Liberal or Conservative. White collar or Blue. Nobody could run shit. And it wasn’t just Detroit. Sacramento, Washington, D.C., Wall Street. The entire country was being run into the ground by a generation infected with incompetence and greed.

– Charlie LeDuff, Detroit: An American Autopsy, 2013

There may only be two kinds of people visiting Detroit these days: those who attend sports games and journalists. Through its deterioration – its failing economy, its corrupt government, its racial and socio-economic divide – Detroit has arguably become a schadenfreude experience for journalists seeking the kind of “man bites dog” stories that you’d normally find in areas of mass urban decay and crime.

This certainly was my anticipation prior to visiting the city for the first time on a recent weekend.

As Charlie LeDuff explains in his latest book on his hometown, Detroit is one of the first cities in the United States to experience a substantial population decline (a mass exodus, in harsher terms) over the last several decades. The city is a ghost of a ghost of its former self. It is, as some have argued, also a symbol of the country’s overall decline. So who else but a journalist would look for opportunity in the city’s demise?

I’ve wanted to visit Detroit for months now, especially after falling in love with Harlem and New York. But Detroit is no Harlem. It’s not gritty in a charming way. Unlike Harlem, there is no lasting appeal in Detroit’s cultural influences. Whereas the Apollo theater and other cultural icons are still around on the vibrant 125th Street strip in the heart of Harlem, there were mostly many closed storefronts in downtown Detroit.

But Detroit was not dramatically falling apart. As I walked around, I noticed people still had jobs, restaurants were open, and Wayne State University School of Medicine’s class of 2013 was celebrating its graduation at the Fox theatre across from Comerica Park. That made me wonder what I had hoped to achieve by “capturing” Detroit’s decline.

With only a few hours to walk around the city prior to watching a hockey game, I began to feel uncomfortable that I sought signs of urban decay, whether from pictures of abandoned buildings or people on the street. Without context, photos can convey an inaccurate or even misleading description. And, more importantly, it can lead to an unfair, biased portrayal of people in the photo.

For example, I took a photo of a man on a bridge who was fishing in the Detroit river during the weekday. He later told me that he knew he wouldn’t catch any fish but he was waiting to pick up his wife after she finished work. It’s not the story I had expected or, admittedly, wanted to hear. I don’t think I would have considered taking his photo if he was fishing across the river in Windsor, Ontario. It would have been a “dog bites man” picture.

As I later browsed through my pictures of graffitied buildings and vacant streets, I realized that I looked for evidence that may not fully explain what I had actually seen in Detroit. In fact, the pictures almost felt voyeuristic. To be fair, the city is very much experiencing a massive decline. However, I refuse to indulge in attention-seeking stories that rarely provide substance such as this ridiculous one.

Journalists are responsible for the content they produce. Although we cannot anticipate how an audience will react to stories, it’s still our ethical responsibility to know our intentions and have self-awareness of the work we create. My experience in Detroit helped me to understand that. Sometimes words are not enough; other times, pictures without context can lead to a schadenfreude situation.

But if there is one picture that I think may capture Detroit’s vibe, it’s this one:


A deserted, worn down building wall that is still standing (for now).

1 comment
  1. Great quote, “Although we cannot anticipate how an audience will react to stories, it’s still our ethical responsibility to know our intentions and have self-awareness of the work we create.” Definitely something to keep in mind when shooting and reporting any place in the world.

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